Imagine for a moment that you are one of Jesus’ twelve disciples and you, your band of rag tag friends, and the Master arrive at the Upper Room after a long, tedious, dusty day going about your business. You sit for a moment to catch your breath and unwind a few moments before you go wash up for the evening meal. You close your eyes for a few minutes, only to feel something or someone taking off your sandals. And to your utter disbelief, kneeling in front of you is the Master Jesus with a basin and a towel.
Never a supporter of lukewarm spirituality, Jesus taught his disciples a clear and concise example of the essence of spirituality: selfless service with a heart of humility. If only more of us, especially those who claim to be followers of Jesus, would take this lesson to heart, our world would have much less pain.
Incarnational Christianity is a faith with a heart of compassion and eyes of discernment, which are able to empathize with those in distress and see a vital need where others see nothing. It is an incarnational Christianity that Jesus described in the 25th chapter of Matthew, in that moving section where he describes the judgment seat and the separation of the sheep and the goats. As followers of the Master, we should always keep these words inscribed on the tablets of our hearts:
Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me. (Matthew 25: 40)
I mention all of this because last night I saw an example of a Christian woman going about the business of being the hands, feet, and heart of Jesus. Her name is Margaret and she is now in her 80’s. Last night, one of the local news programs had a short feature on Margaret and the work she is doing. Unheralded and unknown, this octogenarian is an example of what incarnational faith is all about and is surely what the Apostle Paul called a “living epistle.”
Each Friday and Saturday Margaret does what quite a few folks in this part of the country do: she gets up at the crack of dawn and drives around the area visiting yard sales. Here in the South, yard sales, garage sales, and the like are very common and great bargains can be found, if you know where to look and how to negotiate. Margaret spends about four hours each Friday and Saturday shopping for the best bargains she can find.
The items Margaret buys, however, are not for her.
Instead, this spry lady in her 80’s shops for school supplies, backpacks, and clothing for underprivileged children in the local community. She has been doing this for over 40 years and says she has no intention of stopping. Her efforts are even more remarkable, considering the last two years have not been kind to Margaret. She has watched her husband and two children die slow, agonizing deaths from terminal illnesses.
Margaret’s efforts on behalf of the poor children in her community have gone largely unnoticed, except for the families that receive her help. According to her pastor, even most members of the congregation where she attends church are unaware of her activities.
Margaret is an example of what Christ was talking about when he gave that teaching about “doing it to the least of these.” This elderly lady is an inspiration and a blessing to those honored to know her and she is what incarnational Christianity is all about.
Incarnational Christianity is what James was talking about when he defined religion that was pure and undefiled. What did he say? Something about visiting widows and orphans, I think. Incarnational Christianity is what the prophet Isaiah, centuries before Jesus walked with us in the flesh, describes when he said:
Is this not the fast which I chose,
To loosen the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the bands of the yoke,
And let the oppressed go free
And break every yoke?
Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry,
And bring the homeless poor in the house;
When you see the naked, to cover him;
And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then your light will break out like the dawn,
And your recovery will speedily spring forth;
And your righteousness will go before you;
The glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
You will cry, and he will say, “Here I am.”
If you remove the yoke from your midst,
The pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
And if you give yourself to the hungry,
And satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
Then your light will rise in the darkness
And your gloom will become like mid-day.
And the Lord will continually guide you,
And satisfy your desire in scorched places,
And give strength to your bones;
And you will be like a watered garden,
And like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.
And those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins;
You will raise up the age-old foundations;
And you will be called the repairer of the breach,
The restorer of streets in which to dwell.
(Isa. 58: 6-12 NAS)
As I look around the globe these days, whether it be a few blocks from my home here in Tennessee or halfway around the world in China, where my wife is from, I see one glaring similarity. We need more people like Margaret – people with a heart of compassion and eyes of discernment. We need more people with a proactive commitment to live the teachings of Jesus, rather than pay lip service to the faith by warming a pew with their overly ample rear ends once a week. We need a genuine faith of service and compassion, a faith that is, in the final analysis, obedient to the call of Jesus. Our world and our churches can no longer afford a counterfeit Christianity that blows a lot of hot air about social, hot-button issues while two kids down the street go without breakfast and sleep with rats the size of Dachshunds. At the end of the day, my friends, we need a faith that is authentic. Larry Crabb, in his foreword to Siang-Yang Tan’s excellent book Full Service, makes the following cogent remarks about Christian servanthood:
True servanthood, the opposite of self-serve Christianity, grows out of a human spirit filled with God’s Spirit…..Self-serve Christianity, our pervasive perversion of the real thing, not only accommodates the flesh, it attempts to socialize it with external goodness and then pass it off as spiritual maturity. Beneath so much of what looks like good Christian living is the stubborn attitude that thinks God really exists to serve us. His pleasure isn’t the point. Ours is. And we think there’s a more direct and immediate way to secure our well-being than to live for his glory. Our felt desires now fill the spotlight. Our needs have assumed greater priority than his pleasure.
As I look around the world, including the church, and look into people’s hearts, including mine, I see no worse evil than self-obsession. It’s the root of every other expression of evil…And I see no greater battle in the regenerate human soul than the too often hidden conflict between self-obsession and God-obsession. It shows up in every relationship, every conversation, every sentence. And I believe that the only path to real victory in this fierce battle is to become true servants.
Crabb’s words are perhaps hard to take, but they are true and they are prophetic. And it is this very kind of prophetic voice we in the Body of Christ need now, more than ever. We need to be called back to the important business of the church. We need to be called back to Christian servanthood in the manner and model of the Savior himself. In essence, we need today’s prophetic voices to consistently call us back to our kingdom mission. And what is that mission? The answer is simple, really, and there is no need to complicate it with theological nitpicking or rhetorical cleverness. Why don’t we, following the example of the Master we profess to serve, state our mission just as he did?
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
Because the Lord has anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound.
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,
And the day of vengeance of our God;
To comfort all who mourn,
To console those who mourn in Zion,
To give them beauty for ashes,
The oil of joy for mourning,
The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;
(Isa. 61: 1-3 NKJV)
One of the most encouraging signs of life in the church is the large number of younger Christians that are embracing a wider social agenda. Whereas issues like family values and pro-life issues remain highly important, these energetic believers have a less myopic view of our society and the long-standing problems that just won’t go away. What we are witnessing, and again it is very encouraging and vivifying for the Church as a whole, is nothing less that a rekindling of the social consciousness of a faith tradition that was born out of the compassion that God felt for his fallen and rebellious creation. I use the word “rekindling” because this tradition of selfless service is nothing new to Christianity. It is, as Michael Gerson said in an article in Newsweek way back in November, 2006:
A politically progressive evangelicalism is not an innovation, it is a revival; not a fresh track in the snow, but a rutted path of American history.
I pray daily for those front-line workers who are on the streets and in the fields, everywhere giving flesh to the compassionate grace that this faith calls them to. May they be blessed in every way as they, like their Master, carry forward the tradition of the towel and the basin.
© L.D. Turner 2009/All Rights Reserved